1973 - The Deathbird

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Steven Dooner
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Quick note

Postby Steven Dooner » Tue Jan 11, 2005 2:31 pm

The Mad One's assumption/theft of the role of God is very Gnostic. The blind god, Samael, and William Blake's, Urizen, are also posers, who get in the way of true revelation.
"First we feel, then we fall"
--Finnegans Wake

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Postby Micheal » Tue Jan 11, 2005 3:20 pm

Man creates gods, and in our own image. It is not done the other way around.

Our gods are a statement of our hypocrasy, our cowardice, our venality to one another. If they were in any way separate or different, or removed from us, with any degree of abililty of physical abilities, I'm ceertain this story would never have been written.

Think of when the godthing attacks Stack with illusionary tortures. What it takes to defeat the attempts is simple counterreason, the power of refute the fable of belief with logic and intellect. After Stack manifests the ability, the godthing is rendered completely impotent, left to act in its truest sense: a petulant child unable to coerce control over anyone but smallest and most intellectually immature child.

What Stack does is what we should do. When we defeat the illusions, igniting the spark of intellect within, we become gods ourselves.

Of course, that requires responsiblity to go along with the rights.

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Postby sjarrett » Tue Jan 11, 2005 4:57 pm

Jan wrote:What I said was that we lack awareness of the power to give live and death. (Because we assume that God owns that power to himself.) Therefore I assume that the spark is not that awareness (as claims PAB) but the power. We all have that power, we all have the spark, Stack is one of us.


Ah, I see. Thanks for the correction. Reading PAB's further clarification of her thinking on the subject, I see that I misinterpreted her as well. I'll get the hang of this reading thing one of these days...

Steve J.

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Postby P.A. Berman » Tue Jan 11, 2005 5:45 pm

Jan: I can see what you're saying now, and I think we basically mean the same thing. Reading your last post finally crystallized it for me, so let me try this. The spark is the power that we think of as being the sole province of God-- the power of life and death. What Dira offers is awareness of this power. Does that work?

Micheal: I agree with you in principle, but in the context of this story, it seems clear that the Mad One and Dira's people literally went to Cricket Court to litigate over the Earth. The Mad One won, and got control, thus being a god-like authority imposed from without. Man (like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz), had to but click his heels to free himself of The Mad One, but remained ignorant of this until endgame. Without the awareness of his power, man was in thrall to the false god. When Dira finally gets through to Stack, Stack can realize his power and shuck off the chains of material existence that subject him to the Mad One's torments and transcend this fallen world. 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished...

PAB
I don't know. I don't care. And it doesn't matter anyway. ~Jack Kerouac

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Postby Micheal » Tue Jan 11, 2005 7:54 pm

P.A.:

When I read, I see fiction: the unreal.

The only credibility I can give it is how the writer has made it reflect upon my world. I strip away the unreality to find the truth or ideal IMHO the author wants to leave behind.

When a truth or ideal isn't there, the writer's a hack in my estimation. When there is truth or ideal, I see the talent.

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Postby P.A. Berman » Tue Jan 11, 2005 8:44 pm

Micheal: I am not trying to be snarky when I say I have no idea what your last post means.

In the world Harlan creates in "The Deathbird," the Mad One is a false god who gains control of the world. The true god of Earth, as you say, is obviously man. All it takes is the entire history of the human race for him to realize it...

PAB

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Postby JohnG » Tue Jan 11, 2005 9:52 pm

All it takes is the entire history of the human race for him to realize it... (PAB)


This is true within the context of the story, but it raises a question for me: Stack goes to sleep after he does his duty to his mother (see, while it's clear it's an act of love I think it can also be read as a duty, but that's just my take and kind of off topic)for the balance of the 250,000 years. Stack eventually regains his own memories of life and death, but what about the missing years? Is the earth dying from misuse by man, ie pollution, war, etc., or is it due to the continued flimfammery of the Mad One? It's not clear to me that Stack actually lives through the whole life of the human race--or is it not necessary for him to do so?

On the gnostic issue, since I was thinking about this today: doesn't gnostic thought ultimately still demand a designer, primary source, a demiurge of some sort? The reason I ask is that within the story the Mad One is clearly a false god; our world is created by Dira's people(or am I misreading this?), but they aren't metaphysical in the way it's usually meant for religious purposes. I see TD as a more atheistic statement than Gnostic; all gods are ultimately false gods.

And a leading question: we've said that Stack understands that humans have the power of life and death. I see the death--in the euthanizing--and this is a power that humans knew they had since Cain and Abel--but where is the power to give life?

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my $0.02

Postby KristinRuhle » Wed Jan 12, 2005 1:39 am

I read the story as having a lot of parallel structures (e.g. God/Dog; Nathan's biological mother/ his metaphorical-religious "Earth Mother". It happens at the end of the world (an event Stack is empowered to bring about.) It's significant Stack is Adam, following many, many reincarnations: the first man on Earth is also the last. It's like coming "full circle."

I don't think it's supposed to matter what made the Earth "terminally ill" (although humanity might be responsible.) No one lives forever, and it can be said this applies to planets as well.

I keep re-reading the ending and wonder: When the world ends (in the "euthanasia") does the Mad One go with it? Since the Mad One is a false god, his claim to be in charge of the entire universe is obviously false; he had been allowed to take over only one planetary "sphere." Dira's people may hold some powers of creation - or is it just governance?

In any case, "giving life" seems to be a secondary property of worlds; you have an Earth Mother or an Arcturus III Mother, or whatever - worlds give birth to life. Man (intelligent life?) can bring death - Stack embraces godhood when he accepts that power. It doesn't seem to me that he would survive the death of Earth though. Once one knows "thou art god" could one become a creator as well?

Maybe the tragedy of Earth is that man followed the false god and did not catch on to this until it was too late.

I need to learn more about Gnosticism but I understand it was the basis of some Christian heresies that survived for a long time and that the dualism in it is more Manichaean or Zoroastrian: primordial Good and Evil beings have always existed (as opposed to the fallen-angel Satan in orthodox Judeo-Christianity) and while pure spirit is held to be good, matter is evil - the Evil One created the material universe.

(Forgive me if this seems like a rambling post. I am an English major but the intelligence level of this thread blows me away!)

Kristin

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Postby Steven Dooner » Wed Jan 12, 2005 2:00 am

JohnG, your thoughts on gnosticism are reasonable. Harlan is a professed atheist and, I believe, a humanist. He is not in any way a "theist." However, he does use Vedic thought in more than one of his story. "Thou art God" means that we have to love ourselves and the earth. Some Gnostics might have shared this idea; many did not.

In the Bridhararanyaka Upanishad, God first comes into being and then immediatley experiences fear and anxiety, being all alone in creation. In Genesis, Adam too is lonely and incomplete. Separation creates fear; but Stack learns to overcome fear at the last.

Can we overcome the fear that has ruled us forever? Harlan's definition of a hero seems to be someone who can do this. Even at the very end, when Stack is slipping into the bug-like atavism of a Gregor Samsa, he is able to retract his cilia and pods and stand erect again. I suppose we all battle our own philogeny, and the question is whether we may be more than our evolutionary history.

I also ike very much that Nathan Stack is not an Aristotle of Christ or Khan. In this story, the "spark" exists in someone other than these famous men who "stood out." The rebel, the fatherless child, the man who euthanized his own mother, the man who knows he is part of mother earth and who even makes love to mother earth, the Zarathustra who loves man, especially the human who can realize that he is God and that God is ecology--these are all aspects of the heroism of Nathan Stack.

I hope that we have enough spark in us to master our Sky-fathers, Volcano-gods, thunderers, Indras and Yahwehs. Even if it is in the last seconds before it all blinks out.

An alternative view is given by Eugene O'Neill in The Emperor Jones. At the end of the play, Jones has progressed backwards through time and confronts a primeval Crocodile God. When he kills the God he also kills himself. Stack, however, befriends the serpent and sees God as a little pathetic thing--this is the Zarathustrian child in full assertion of himself and independent of his idols.
"First we feel, then we fall"

--Finnegans Wake

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Correction

Postby Jan » Wed Jan 12, 2005 6:02 am

Upon thinking it over, I think P.A. Berman were both close to being correct about the spark. But there's Harlan's text to be considered, too. :-) At the end of section 8 you can see that the spark is intelligence (although the word wisom is used), so what PAB said (if I remember correctly) about the spark being the capacity of man to be aware of his own power is true. Harlan makes reference to the history of man, and I guess he means the moment when we became different from animals (starting with one person, Adam). Since we are all intelligent, we must all have the spark. (PAB, please confirm.) Stack fights God with his intelligence, i.e. with his capacity to overcome fear. God is the Wizard of Oz (section 19). He's rather powerless, but he sure can frighten us. To him we are toys (section 21). Giving death is one thing we can do that he doesn't want us to know about. Another thing we could do, if we weren't frightened and lacked confidence would be to just take life into our own hands. I think Harlan is a living example of doing that, so it's fitting that he should have written this story.

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Postby Jan » Wed Jan 12, 2005 6:13 am

JohnG.: >but where is the power to give life?

I thought that went without saying. Have you ever heard of children and how they come to be? Otherwise could someone please explain it to John? ;-)

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Postby JohnG » Wed Jan 12, 2005 8:16 am

(Jan)Have you ever heard of children and how they come to be? Otherwise could someone please explain it to John?


I must have missed that day in biology class :oops:

Here's what I mean: I don't think the spark(either in TD or in reality)is the power to give life or death. Dumb unreasoning animals can give birth as well as humans, and other animals can take it away, but they do it instinctually. There's no choice involved, if you think about it. There's nothing unique about that.

What makes man different from the birds and bees? The dog, Stack's mother, the Earth itself, and I'd argue possibly the Mad One, are euthanized out of a sense, a process of thought and choice, that no animal could by definition possess. I'd argue, although it's not germane to the story discussion, is that the spark is the ability to make abstract choices, be they good or bad. Way back when I was taught that what the fruit of the tree gave to Adam and Eve was the knowledge of good and evil--as an adult I see that as the idea of choosing or not choosing actions based on consequence.

The idea that with great power comes great responsibility isn't axiomatic---I'd argue it's a profoundly basic statement of an ethic, and the choices one can make.

Steve, great points as always. I think one of the major appeals of HE's fiction, and hell, a lot of his non-fiction, is the idea that anyone can be a hero(if that's the right word) if they are willing to make the tough choices and see them through. I know I must have been exposed to the O'Neill play you reference but that's a a great conclusion and one that escaped me entirely--one more piece of lit I'll need to check out again!

Kristin, I left a link to a gnostic site that had a pretty good recap of the major positions. From what I read there, in any case, you've pretty much nailed it down.

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Postby Ezra Lb. » Wed Jan 12, 2005 8:24 am

For those interested in the Gnostic angle...

Testimony of Truth

The Nag Hammadi Library in English : Revised Edition
by James M. Robinson

It is written in the Law concerning this, when God gave a command to Adam, "From every tree you may eat, but from the tree which is in the midst of Paradise do not eat, for on the day that you eat from it, you will surely die." But the serpent was wiser than all the animals that were in Paradise, and he persuaded Eve, saying, "On the day when you eat from the tree which is in the midst of Paradise, the eyes of your mind will be opened." And Eve obeyed, and she stretched forth her hand; she took from the tree and ate; she also gave to her husband with her. And immediately they knew that they were naked, and they took some fig-leaves (and) put them on as girdles.

But God came at the time of evening, walking in the midst of Paradise. When Adam saw him, he hid himself. And he said, "Adam, where are you?" He answered (and) said, "I have come under the fig tree." And at that very moment, God knew that he had eaten from the tree of which he had commanded him, "Do not eat of it." And he said to him, "Who is it who has instructed you?" And Adam answered, "The woman whom you have given me." And the woman said, "It is the serpent who instructed me." And he (God) cursed the serpent, and called him "devil." And he said, "Behold, Adam has become like one of us, knowing evil and good." Then he said, "Let us cast him out of paradise, lest he take from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever."

But what sort is this God? First he maliciously refused Adam from eating of the tree of knowledge, and, secondly, he said "Adam, where are you?" God does not have foreknowledge? Would he not know from the beginning? And afterwards, he said, "Let us cast him out of this place, lest he eat of the tree of life and live forever." Surely, he has shown himself to be a malicious grudger! And what kind of God is this? For great is the blindness of those who read, and they did not know him. And he said, "I am the jealous God; I will bring the sins of the fathers upon the children until three (and) four generations." And he said, "I will make their heart thick, and I will cause their mind to become blind, that they might not know nor comprehend the things that are said." But these things he has said to those who believe in him and serve him!


http://gnosis.org/naghamm/nhl.html


But having quoted this I must say I think to view Deathbird through the Gnostic lense is to distort it and to go off in the wrong direction. By and large the Gnostics were repulsed by nature and the material world. Their view was the exact opposite of the ecological one.

I think you can trace HE's vision to the rich, noble tradition of Jewish humanism. The tragedy is not that we give away our power to a false god (as in the gnostic view) but that we give away our power at all. All we have is our power and the source of this power is our ability to take responsibility for our own lives. And out of the freedom that this reponsibility gives, comes our ability (and power) to help each other.

In Genesis man is given dominion over the earth. Sadly subsequent generations have interpreted this as a license to exploit and defile. But the original conception is not this at all. Man is given the reponsibility for creation, to tend the earth like a garden, to care for it. I've always thought the ending of Deathbird was a nice reflection of this. Just as at the beginning man was given responsibility for the earth (his mother) so at the end it is his responsibility to see the mother to the end of her pain.
“We must not always talk in the marketplace,” Hester Prynne said, “of what happens to us in the forest.”
-Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

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Postby Micheal » Wed Jan 12, 2005 9:28 am

What I mean is I search for the message and argument to the audience the writer has crafted, the more immediate connection. I look for the symbolism that reflects our world, not other ones.

The true god of Earth, as you say, is obviously man. All it takes is the entire history of the human race for him to realize it...


I see no true gods, only people. We have total power of will should we decide to use it. We have total responsibility for our actions, should we decide to enable it.

We are afraid to do both.

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Postby sjarrett » Wed Jan 12, 2005 9:34 am

It seems to me that we may be getting too hung up on whether "The Deathbird" is strictly Gnostic in its viewpoint. The point is that Gnosticism provides one of a number of interpretive frameworks through which the story can be profitably analyzed. The fact that the comparison breaks down at a certain level of granularity doesn't, it seems to me, negate the value of the comparison. I don't think anyone is advocating the position that "The Deathbird" is, first and last, a Gnostic story, or even that it is necessarily influenced by Gnostic thought. It is, first and last, an Ellisonian story. Existence precedes essence, to coin a phrase. But if comparing it with elements of Gnostic thought can shed new light on our understanding of the story, so much the better.

Steve J.


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